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Desire for Enlightenment
June 5th, 2014

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Desire for Enlightenment

It is well-known that lust  for Enlightenment prevents Enlightenment, since Enlightenment is the cessation of lust,  aversion and ignorance… So, dealing 'mindfully' with such a lust is critical!

It is true though that the lust for Enlightenment might be used, for a long time, as a wholesome motivation. The Kathavatthu sutta says as much (

« There are these ten topics of [proper] conversation. Which ten? Talk on modesty, on contentment, on seclusion, on non-entanglement, on arousing persistence, on virtue, on concentration, on discernment, on release, and on the knowledge & vision of release. These are the ten topics of conversation. If you were to engage repeatedly in these ten topics of conversation, you would outshine even the sun & moon, so mighty, so powerful — to say nothing of the wanderers of other sects. »

But just like wholesome karma is not yet Liberation from karma, wholesome lust is not yet cessation of lust. Wholesomeness is however a lot better, a lot more helpful (for everyone and everything in the causal web) than unwholesomeness!

In Pāḷi, there are different words for desires: 'taṇhā',  craving, is not just any kind of "desire," but "demanding desire", a desire we let control us, a desire which takes away our freedom… while 'chanda',  the "desire to do," can have wholesome forms which are part of the path.

"Fighting fire with fire" works, up to a point. But that doesn't mean you should spend your time burning your whole forest down just to make sure it doesn't ever catch fire…

As a source of motivation, lust for Enlightenment may only be temporary… Or it might lead to conceit ( and to possessiveness / stinginess of the Dharma ( or the Macchariya sutta, AN 5.256–263,

Bikkhu Bodhi would not  reject the motivation linked to merit, higher rebirths, attainments… but he still made clear that this was only temporary (
« The ethical counsel based on the desire for higher rebirths and happiness in future lives is not the final teaching of the Buddha, and thus cannot provide the decisive program of personal training commended by the Dhammapada »

The desire for deliverance leads to a quickening of insight, but… as Ananda explains in the Brahmana sutta  (,
« Whatever desire he first had for the attainment of arahantship, on attaining arahantship that particular desire is allayed. »

The lust for Enlightenment is acknowledged in the suttas themselves, as being wholesome, but also as necessarily being temporary… If it's not temporary, you're 'permanently' lusting, i.e. you actually never become an arahant!

Krishnamurti described the desire for Enlightenment as extremely dangerous, because it is what opens the door to abuse of followers by 'gurus'…

Kenneth Folk said: « Everybody wants to think, “Okay, I’m going to get enlightened and then my life will be pleasant all the time. I’ll have a beatific smile on my face. I will wear flowing white robes. Everybody will love me and bow down and kiss my feet. I will never say anything rude or harsh. I will lose my sexual desire because, after all, sexual desire is a little bit icky. And let’s see—I’ll never get angry.” Come on. That’s kids’ stuff. »

Trungpa Rinpoche said: « Enlightenment is the ego’s ultimate disappointment. »

How can one aim for Enlightenment, without it being a manifestation of lust, of greed, of craving?

There's the case of someone who simply realises that all beings suffer, that all beings wish not  to suffer, and that causality gives a handle on dukkha  (both by explaining how struggle arises and by providing a Path to cease it).
One then cultivates the path towards Enlightenment, or even better attains Enlightenment here&now, as the appropriate response to give to the context at hand.

It is thus not about the practitioner any more, who is no longer driven by an 'individual' craving; it is about the present situation and the constructive response it calls for.

This is a case of "non-greed", "non-lust" (very different from 'aversion'): one doesn't 'desire' Enlightenment, but one also doesn't 'desire' to spare oneself from the effort to provide an appropriate response.
All which matters is 'appropriateness' to here&now… as the only possible measure of success in a impermanent, entity-less world!

All beings suffer,
all beings wish not  to suffer, and
causality gives a handle on suffering:
given this situation, what's the appropriate response?

You might call it 'compassion', 'love', 'sympathetic joy' or 'equanimity' but really the four brahmaviharas  just constitute "the appropriate response" ( and it doesn't involve lust, notably because it doesn't involve a 'self' (who would or could actually  'acquire' the object of lust).

You might call it "samsara is nirvāṇa".
Nirvāṇa is 'attained' once we realise the appropriate response to saṃsāra (, not by reaching a separate Paradise (or 'something' to lust for)… Life is your teacher and you have buddha-nature (

Pure Land Buddhism would assert that worldly desires are the gate to Liberation…

Nichiren wrote: « Among those who wish to become Buddhas through attempting to eradicate earthly desires and shunning the lower nine worlds, there is not one ordinary person who actually attained enlightenment. This is because Buddhahood cannot exist apart from the lower nine worlds »…
Zhiyi also wrote about the inter-dependence of Good and Evil, with the "Three Thousand Realms in a Single Thought Moment" (

In general, Tantrism would not suppress worldly desires but, instead, it would teach to directly enquire into how you relate to these desires (partly because if you need to help someone suffering, you need to understand how their mind ticks)…

You might call it 'bodhicitta' (  True bodhicitta is without craving. It isn't possible to cultivate the pāramitās  of patience and perseverance when one craves for fast results… It isn't possible to vow to save all beings and to master numberless gates and to cease endless defilements when one craves for hard, easily measurable results based on countable entities…
The Bodhisattva ideal is practical (, it is ambitious but practical. 'Craving' is the close enemy of 'ambition' though: one may confuse one with the other, however craving kills ambition by feeding impatience and proliferating pointless hopes for shortcuts and quick fixes. 'Ambition' is just the appropriate response to large problems that need a response; 'craving' brings nothing positive to such a conversation.

#Buddhism   #Dharma  
art: "Rem(a)inders"  © Michelangelo Pistoletto (2010)